WDS: Five Storytelling Lessons from Coaching the Attendee Storytellers at World Domination Summit

People on a stage

I stood up, feeling the fizz of excitement under my skin, and started looking around the empty lobby of the conference hall. It was evening. I knew that most people had left, but I needed to be certain.

Yep, I was definitely alone.

empty lobby

I walked to the space where there were no chairs. Then, silently and frantically, I began leaping up and down, alternately punching my fists in the air, before ending on a little stationary run.

It was Saturday night, and I had just finished coaching the Attendee Storytellers for World Domination Summit.

WDS is a conference where, once a year, several thousand do-gooders descend on Portland, to get inspired and try and figure out how to make the world a better place. Along with TED-style informative and inspiring speakers, every year, they have a number of “Attendee Stories” on the main stage – where people from the audience can apply to get up and have a go themselves.

I told a story a few years ago – you can hear it here – and, since then, I’ve become the Official Storytelling Coach for World Domination Summit. Which sounds like loads of fun – and is – until you know that I have just one afternoon to help all the storytellers get their 20 or 30 minute stories down to one minute.




It’s brutal but, every year, I do it – and, every year, the challenge makes me feel high as a kite afterwards. Hence the silent, solo leaping around.


Here are five things I learned from coaching this year’s attendee storytellers at World Domination Summit:People on a stage

(1) Always have at least one “Action Scene”

When you’re telling a story, you’re making a movie inside someone’s head. Most of that movie needs to be made up of action scenes. I’ve talked about that in great detail HERE, but the short form is: action scenes are granular descriptions of something that happened. What did it look like? How did you feel?

The problem with action scenes is that they take up time. And in a one minute story, you don’t have a lot of that.


If you want your story to captivate your audience, you must have at least one action scene.

The magic of storytelling is about the way it affects our brains. When we’re listening to a well-told story – as well as when we’re telling one – our brains respond as if we are INSIDE the story. Which means that the brains of the storyteller and the listener (and everyone else in the room!) go in sync with each other. This is where the magic comes from.

In order to feel that magic, you MUST describe what things looked like, and how they felt. Which means you need an action scene.

In a minute-long story, you likely don’t have time for more than one. But make sure there’s at least one action scene in there. Describe what it looked like. Describe how you felt.

“Telling a story? You must include at least one ‘action scene’”

(2) You can always edit more than you think

With each WDS Attendee storyteller, I’d go through my coaching process: first, interviewing them to pull the story – and all the details – out. Next, picking through what they told me, to figure out what needs to stay and what can go. Then I’d give the storyteller back a structure, for them to go and work on.People on a stage

The only problem? At first, it was ALWAYS too long. In order to fit in what felt like the most important parts of the story, the finished product would run to two minutes or more. So I’d start again.

Every time, I just needed to ask myself this question:

What it is the point we’re trying to get across with this story?

And then,

What can I cut out, but still get this point across?

It’s brutal. But in the end, I managed to edit some stories down to 30 seconds – which gave us wiggle room to add some details back in.

Even when you think you can’t, you can always edit a little more.

“Stories: you can always edit more than you think”

(3) Let go of your ego

In literature, they call this “Killing your darlings”. Because that’s what it can feel like. There might be an element of your story that seems to be ESSENTIAL to you. But, if it isn’t 100% necessary to get across your main point? It can go.

When you’re telling a story that’s short, you have to think of it as the teaser to the longer story – one you can tell when audience members who ask you about it afterwards. When I’m coaching people to tell ten minute stories and cutting out great – but not essential – elements and action scenes, I always say, “Save this part for the autobiography, or the one-person Fringe show.”

Kill your darlings. Let go of your ego as you edit.

“When editing your stories,
you have to let go of your ego”


(4)… But follow your heart

One of the WDS Attendee Stories – an amazing lady called Janne – had a story that began with her mother dying. Essential to her point was that, rather than this being a tragic momPeople on a stageent for her, she saw it as beautiful. In order to get across the humour (which is present in everything Janne does!), she and I were stuggling with editing down the action scene.

I always explain to storytellers that, one of the adages – and I think, rules – of storytelling is “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”. This doesn’t mean, “Lie to impress people.” Rather, it means:

“Do whatever you need to do to make the listener feel the way you felt in that moment.”

When you’re short on time, sometimes that means blending two different conversations that you had into one. Sometimes, it means cutting out an extraneous character or location, which would sidetrack your audience.

Sometimes, it means truncating something that was said. I asked Janne, “How would you feel about jumping straight from the first thing you said in that situation, to the last, missing out the parts in between?”

Janne said, “No. This is too important for me to change any details of what happened.”

I was so glad that she did. If you tell a story in a way that doesn’t feel good, you’ll tell a terrible story.

When it comes to editing your stories, you must follow your heart. Even if it’s not the “right” thing to do, saying yes to yourself is more important than saying yes to the rules (or to the storytelling coach!).

“Follow your heart.
Telling a story that feels bad will sound bad.”


(5) Don’t end on “a message”. Show don’t tell.

Often, people feel a compulsion to end their stories with a moral or a message.Marsha giving ovation
“And that was the day that I learned, you should never eat cold bacon!”

This always feels like a shame to me. When it comes at the end of a story full of action scenes that have kept me fully engaged with and connected to the teller, pulling me out of those feels like deflating my wonder balloon.

Show don’t tell. If the moral is obvious as a result of the story – if eating cold bacon has disastrous consequences – then we don’t need you to point it out to us.

In the attendee stories at this year’s World Domination Summit, we learned the importance of staying open to surprises; helping friends with tricky challenges, being true to your real self; using your perceived weaknesses as superpowers; and taking charge of how you view important moments. This was implicit from the stories – without anyone needing to ram the point home.

Don’t feel you need to end on a message. Show, don’t tell.

“Don’t end all your stories with a message.
Show, don’t tell.”


I truly believe EVERYONE has powerful stories to tell.

If you want to tell yours:

  • Use action scenes
  • Keep Editing
  • Let go of your ego
  • (while following your heart)
  • and show the message, without feeling the need to tell us. People giving ovation to Marsha

And, if you’d like a little extra help, I mean it when I say it’s my favourite thing to do. Not many pieces of work make me want to dance silently and furiously around empty lobbies. Find out more about how to tell your one story here:  yesyesmarsha.com/storycoaching. Or if you want help sharpening up (or even writing!) a whole talk, find out how I can do that for you, here: yesyesmarsha.com/speech

Did any of those five points tickled you? Let me know which one, in the comments below!

Thanks so much for reading! If you know anyone else who might be interested in this – perhaps someone who has to tell a one- or five-minute story sometime soon? – you can share it with them, using one of the round buttons below.

You rule,

xx (Yes Yes) Marsha



PS 1 want to SEE those 5 stories? you can here: yesyesmarsha.com/oneminute

PS 2 want to know my best-ever client secret – and get even more advice, tips, plus stories that I won’t put on the internet? Come and join the Yes Yes Family – it’s free! Just pop your details in below:

Photo Credit: first one is fusion-of-horizons via Compfight cc, the rest (from WDS) are the incredible Tera at Amosa Studios


  • Jack Reeves

    Reply Reply August 24, 2016

    (Y) I can only thank my lucky stars that Marsha is out to dominate the world for GOOD :)

    Great post, Marsha. Thank you for inspiring me to be more thoughtful about the “movies” I create in the heads of my audience. My best stories aren’t calculated, they just sort of pop out of an ego-less (or ego-reduced?) zone.

    Much love!

    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Thanks, Jack! I’d wager your subconscious cooks those up to be just perfect.

      Delighted to have you in the Yes Yes Family!


  • Michelle Sokolich

    Reply Reply August 24, 2016

    Love this!!! When I was Promo Producing in TV for a living we had to edit our trailers down to 30 seconds, always hard!!! And we used to say to each other ‘gotta kill your babies’ which sounds slightly more horrific than ‘kill your darlings’ :-)

    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Haha, in radio, I used to call it “Killing your children”, which I think might be the most horrific of all!

      Thanks, Michelle :)


  • Kiki Reef

    Reply Reply August 24, 2016

    Hi, Marsha:

    We met at WDS just a few days back! I usually think of myself as a pretty good story teller but your 1st pointer about setting an action scene really solidified my approach. Now if I’m ever feeling nervous, that will be my go-to tool to things rolling! Love your site!


    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Hi Kiki!
      So glad you found this helpful! Thanks for the lovely words. And nice to meet you!


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